DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.4717 ISSN: 2150-8925

Fire regime shapes butterfly communities through changes in nectar resources in an Australian tropical savanna

Julia B. Leone, Diane L. Larson, Anna E. Richards, Jon Schatz, Alan N. Andersen
  • Ecology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


Fire‐dependent savanna provides key habitat for butterflies globally, but we know little about how fire regimes, including fire frequency and season, affect them. These impacts are likely to be primarily indirect, through changes in overall habitat structure, the abundance of larval host plants, and/or the provision of nectar resources for adults. We examined the relationships among fire regime, butterfly abundance and diversity, and vegetation structure and floral resources within a long‐term fire experiment near Darwin in the Australian monsoon tropics. We surveyed butterflies and floral resources throughout the 2019–2020 wet season in three replicate plots of each of six experimental treatments that had been operating for 15 years. All plots subject to fire had been burned in the previous dry season. We observed 24 butterfly species and 280 individuals representing all five butterfly families found in Northern Australia. Butterfly abundance was highest under early dry‐season (June) fire regimes (mean = 11.9 individuals per plot survey) compared with a late dry‐season (October) regime (mean = 6.7) and in the long‐term absence of fire (mean = 5.3), and this was correlated with the abundance of floral resources. The distribution of butterflies was also highly associated with floral resources within plots regardless of fire treatment. Butterfly species richness was significantly higher in early dry‐season (mean = 6.8) compared with unburned (mean = 3.3) plots but did not differ between early and late dry‐season (mean = 4.7) plots. Butterfly and floral diversity were similar across all early dry‐season fire treatments regardless of whether they had been burned every 1, 2, 3, or 5 years. Our finding that early dry‐season burning promotes butterfly diversity and abundance by increasing the supply of nectar resources has important implications for biodiversity management more broadly, given that nectar is a critical resource for many animal taxa.

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